Curiosity and the Issue of Planetary Protection

Curiosity at Centre of Attention During Testing Image Credit: NASA /JPL - Caltech

Curiosity at Centre of Attention During Testing Image Credit: NASA /JPL – Caltech

There have been many reports about the possibility of NASA’s Curiosity rover contaminating Mars with microbes from Earth once it lands on the Red Planet in August. The wheels, the landing procedure and the drill bits have all come under scrutiny. But what are the concerns and what safeguards are there to prevent contamination from this or other missions?

In 1967 the United Nations drew up the ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies.’ All countries which sign up to the treaty “shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.” Every mission is given a category (I,II,III,IV or V) depending on whether it is a flyby, orbiter, lander, or Earth return mission, whether its destination is a planet, moon, comet, or asteroid and whether the destination could provide clues about life or have the potential to support Earth life. So for instance Cassini is a catagory II mission, Curiosity is classed as a IVc mission.

Every stage of a mission is carefully monitored. From construction in a sterile clean room with laminar-air-flow systems, pressurized microbial barriers and personnel wearing hoods, masks, surgical gloves, booties and protective suits called bunny suits. Components and entire spacecraft are sterilized using dry heat microbial reduction, by being enclosed in a bioshield (like a large casserole dish) and baked them in an oven at 111.7 degrees Celsius for 30 hours. For more sensitive components a low-temperature process is used. Components are placed in a vacuum and hydrogen peroxide is injected into the sterilization chamber to establish a specified vapor concentration. Thousands of samples are taken at every stage of construction and tested for spore-forming organisms, for example the Viking mission in 1975 tested more than 6000 samples in total.

Three issues have arisen with the Curiosity rover. During the landing procedure a parachute and thrusters will slow the descent before the ‘sky crane’ lowers the rover, its wheels making direct contact with the surface. Previous rovers have waited on landing platforms for days before their wheels made contact with the surface and in tests it has been shown that even a few hours exposure to Martian levels of ultraviolet can kill between 81 and 96 per cent of bacteria that may be present. So once Curiosity lands it will probably need to remain stationary for some days to minimize the risk of contamination from its wheels.

Another issue arose last year, after launch, when it was realized that a step in the planetary protection measures wasn’t adhered to during the manufacture of the rover’s drill bits. These were meant to arrive at Mars inside a sterile box, but the box was opened and the bits tested for contamination and one of the bits was attached to the drill head. This procedure strayed from earlier agreed-to protocols. The drills have now become another cause concern as it has been found that Teflon and molybdenum disulfide from seals within the drill assembly could rub off and mix in to contaminate samples excavated during operation, making the samples more difficult to analyze. The MSL team are looking at ways to work around the problem, these could include running the drill on a slower, less percussive setting or dispensing with the drill altogether and relying on Curiosity’s scoop to take soils soil samples and using the rover’s wheels to roll over and break open rocks.

This all serves to highlight the importance of the planetary protection treaty to ensure we do everything possible to reduce the risk of contaminating other worlds and of compromising any data we return.

Find out more at NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection

Engineers Able to Narrow Landing Ellipse for Curiosity Rover

This image shows changes in the target landing area for Curiosity, the rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory project. The larger ellipse was the target area prior to early June 2012, when the project revised it to the smaller ellipse centered nearer to the foot of Mount Sharp, inside Gale Crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS


Engineers for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover have now zeroed in to a more precise landing ellipse, now aiming for a landing spot that is closer to where the scientists ultimately want to be, the foot of Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater. It was possible to adjust landing plans because of increased confidence in precision landing technology.

“We’re trimming the distance we’ll have to drive after landing by almost half,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “That could get us to the mountain months earlier.”

The layers of rock and sediments located in the mountain are the prime location for research with the rover.

Curiosity is scheduled to land at approximately 10:31 p.m. PDT Aug. 5 (1:31 a.m. EDT, Aug. 6). Following checkout operations, Curiosity will begin a two-year study of whether the landing vicinity ever offered an environment favorable for microbial life.

Theisinger and other mission leaders described the target adjustment during an update to reporters on Monday, June 11, about preparations for landing and for operating Curiosity on Mars.

A June 2012 revision of the landing target area for Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, reduces the area's size. It also puts the center of the landing area closer to Mount Sharp, which bears geological layers that are the mission's prime destination. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS

The landing target ellipse had been approximately 20 kilometers wide by 25 kilometers long (12 miles wide and 16 miles long). Continuing analysis of the new landing system’s capabilities has allowed mission planners to shrink the area to approximately 7 by 20 kilometers (4 by 12 miles), assuming winds and other atmospheric conditions are as predicted.

Even with the smaller ellipse, Curiosity will be able to touch down at a safe distance from steep slopes at the edge of Mount Sharp.

“We have been preparing for years for a successful landing by Curiosity, and all signs are good,” said Dave Lavery, Mars Science Laboratory program executive at NASA. “However, landing on Mars always carries risks, so success is not guaranteed. Once on the ground we’ll proceed carefully. We have plenty of time since Curiosity is not as life-limited as the approximate 90-day missions like NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander.”

Since the spacecraft was launched in November 2011, engineers have continued testing and improving its landing software. Mars Science Laboratory will use an upgraded version of flight software installed on its computers during the past two weeks. Additional upgrades for Mars surface operations will be sent to the rover about a week after landing.

Other preparations include upgrades to the rover’s software and understanding effects of debris coming from the drill the rover will use to collect samples from rocks on Mars. Experiments at JPL indicate that Teflon from the drill could mix with the powdered samples. Testing will continue past landing with copies of the drill. The rover will deliver the samples to onboard instruments that can identify mineral and chemical ingredients.

“The material from the drill could complicate, but will not prevent analysis of carbon content in rocks by one of the rover’s 10 instruments. There are workarounds,” said John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Organic carbon compounds in an environment are one prerequisite for life. We know meteorites deliver non-biological organic carbon to Mars, but not whether it persists near the surface. We will be checking for that and for other chemical and mineral clues about habitability.”

source: JPL

Take a Peek Inside Curiosity’s Shell

LED-lit image from Mars Science Laboratory inside its shell (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)


Take a look around Curiosity’s cozy cabin! Ok, there’s really not much to see (she didn’t get a window seat) but when the image above was taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on April 20, the spacecraft she’s tucked into was just over 120 million km (74 million miles) from Earth, en route to Mars. In other words, just past those blurry components and outside that dark shell is real outer space… that’s cool!

This color image was planned by the MSL team, used to confirm that MAHLI is operating as it should. The two green dots are reflections of the camera’s LED lights, and the rusty-orange out-of-focus parts are cables. The silver thing is a bracket holding said cables.

So why is this fancy camera taking blurry pictures (and the folks at NASA are happy about it?) Since MAHLI is designed to take both close-up images of rocks on Mars as well as landscape shots, it has a focusing motor. But when it’s not in use — such as during its current 11-month-long cruise to Mars — the motor puts the focusing lens into a safe position to protect it from damage during launch, entry and landing.

Where is Curiosity now?

Positioned this way, MAHLI can only focus on objects 2 cm (less than an inch) away from its lens, and there simply aren’t any inside the capsule.

Of course, once Curiosity arrives at Mars and completes her exciting landing at Gale Crater, MAHLI will have plenty of things to take pictures of! Until then we’ll be patient, it can take a rest and we can rest assured that it’s working just fine.

Keep up with the latest news from the Mars Science Laboratory team here.

Labeled parts of the MSL rover (NASA/Kim Shiflett; cropping/annotation by Malin Space Science Systems)

San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) built and operates the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) aboard the Curiosity Mars rover. MSSS also built and operates the rover’s Mastcams and Mars Descent Imager. Read more about their contributions to Curiosity’s exploration mission here.

SAM: NASA’s Attempt to Repeat Viking’s Search for Martian Organics

Curiosity Rover
Artist concept of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Credit: NASA

After 36 years of debate, confusion, and failed attempts by other space agencies to answer a basic question, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is on its way to repeat the search for organic matter that eluded the two Viking probes.

With 96 days left until landing, MSL will touch down at the Gale Crater this August. The rover, called Curiosity, will be the largest vehicle delivered to our neighboring planet thus far. Weighing in at 900 kg, Curiosity is nearly five times as large as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed eight years ago, and more than 1.5 times as large as each Viking lander that arrived on planet in 1976.

Like the Vikings and Mars Exploration Rovers, Curiosity was conceived and launched, largely to gather information that may tell us whether the Red Planet harbors microbial life. Instrumentation launched for in situ analysis has been advancing steadily since the Viking era, yet each chapter in the story of the search for Martian life builds upon the previous ones.

Though usually mentioned only briefly in the days when Spirit and Opportunity were making headlines, the twin Viking landers were amazing craft, not only for their time, but even for today. The instrument suite of each Viking lander included a suite of three biology experiments, instruments designed for the direct detection of microbes, should the regolith at either of the two Viking landing sites contain any. While subsequent landing craft have carried instruments designed to assess Mars’ potential for life, none since the Project Viking has been built to look for Martian life forms directly.

According to Viking investigator Gilbert Levin, the Viking landers already discovered Martian life. Back in 1976-1977, Levin’s instrument, known as the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, yielded positive results at Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, the two Viking landing sites. When treated with a solution containing small, organic chemicals labeled with radioactive carbon, regolith samples taken at the landing sites released a gas, indicated by an increase in radioactivity in the space above the sample.

While Levin believes the gas is carbon dioxide resulting from the oxidation of the organic chemicals, it’s also conceivable that the chemicals were reduced to another gas, methane. Either way, since heating the samples to a temperature high enough to kill most of the microbes that we know on Earth prevented the gas release, the Viking science team concluded initially that the LR had detected life.

Most of the science team, but not Levin, decided that the gas release in the LR must have resulted from a non-biological chemical reaction. This rethinking was due to variety of factors, but the most important of which was that the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS) of each lander failed to detect organic matter in the samples. As the late Carl Sagan explained it on his television series, Cosmos, “If there is life on Mars, where are the dead bodies?”

While most astrobiologists and planetary scientists do not agree with Levin that the results of his 36 year-old experiment constitute conclusive evidence for Martian life, there is a growing number of Mars scientists who are equivocal on the issue. According to Levin, Sagan moved into the equivocal category in 1996, after astrobiologist David McKay and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science describing fossilized life in meteorite ALH84001, one of a handful of meteorites known to be from Mars.

The SAM experiment.

Traveling within Curiosity’s enormous instrument package is a suite of machines called SAM, which stands for “Sample Analysis at Mars”. After all of these years, SAM represents NASA’s first attempt to repeat Viking’s search for Martian organics, but with more advanced technology.

This is not to say that other attempts were not made during the intervening years. In 1996, the Russian Federal Space Agency launched a Mars-bound probe carrying not only organic chemistry equipment but an upgraded version of Levin’s experiment. Rather than treating regolith samples with a mixture of “right-handed” and “left-handed” forms of organic substrates (known in chemistry as racemic mixtures), the new LR would have treated some samples with a left-handed substrate (L-cysteine) and others with the substrate’s mirror image (D-cysteine).

Had results been the same for L- and D-cysteine, a non-biological mechanism would have seemed all the more likely. However, if the active agent in the Martian regolith favored one compound at the expense of the other, this would indicate life. Even more intriguing: if the active agent favored D-cysteine, it would have suggested an origin of life on Mars separate from the origin of life on Earth, since terrestrial life forms use mostly left-handed amino acids. Such a result would suggest that life originates fairly easily, implying a cosmos teaming with living forms.

But Russia’s Mars ’96 probe crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after liftoff. A few years later, the European Space Agency sent Beagle 2 to Mars, carrying an advanced organic detection package, but this probe too was lost.

While Curiosity’s SAM does not include an LR experiment of any sort, it does have organic matter detection capability that can operate in mass spectrometry (MS), or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GS-MS) mode. In addition to being able to detect certain classes of organic compounds that the Viking GCMS would have missed in surface material, SAM also is designed to look for methane in the Martian atmosphere. Though atmospheric methane already has been detected already from orbit, detailed measurements of its concentration and fluctuations will help astrobiologists to determine whether the source is methane-producing microorganisms.

Curiosity Halfway to Red Planet Touchdown

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Spacecraft Cruising to Mars. Guided by the stars, Curiosity has reached the halfway point of its interplanetary cruise phase from the Earth to Mars in between launch on Nov. 26, 2011 and final approach in August 2012. MSL will use the stars to navigate. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped solar powered cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell (right). Curiosity and the descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell. Along the way to Mars, the cruise stage will perform six trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the spacecraft's path toward its final, precise landing site on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.

It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).

Curiosity’s Position in Space on April 1, 2012 - Halfway to Mars
This roadmap shows Curiosity's flight path through the Solar System - From Earth to Mars during the 8.5 month interplanetary cruise. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.

“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”

This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.

“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.

“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”

Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.

RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.

Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.

All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.

Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.

Stay tuned

Simulated view to Mars over the shoulder of Curiosity on 1 April 2012 - from current location halfway to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read Ken’s recent Curiosity feature here:
A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity carries a Lincoln Penny on the calibration target to be used by a camera at the end of the robotic arm. The calibration target for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera is attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Inset shows the location of the calibration target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s huge Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is carrying a vintage Lincoln penny along for the long interplanetary journey to Mars – and it’s not to open the first Martian savings account.

Scientists will use the century old Lincoln penny – minted back in 1909 – as a modern age calibration target for one of Curiosity’s five powerful science cameras attached to the end of the hefty, 7 foot (2.1 meter) long robotic arm.

The car sized rover is on course to touchdown at the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater in just 161 days on Aug. 6, 2012.

So far Curiosity has traveled 244 million kilometers since blasting off on Nov. 26, 2011 from Florida and has another 322 million kilometers to go to the Red Planet.

The copper penny is bundled to a shoulder joint on the rovers arm along with the other elements of the calibration target, including color chips, a metric standardized bar graphic, and a stair-step pattern for depth calibration.

The whole target is about the size of a smart phone and looks a lot like an eye vision chart in an ophthalmologist’s office. And it serves a similar purpose, which will be to check the performance of Curiosity eyes – specifically the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera located at the terminus of the robotic arm.

Curiosity’s Calibration Target
Two instruments at the end of the robotic arm on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity will use calibration targets attached to a shoulder joint of the arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MAHLI will conduct close-up inspections of Martian rocks and soil. It can show tiny details, finer than a human hair.

The term “hand lens” in MAHLI’s name refers to the standard practice by field geologists’ of carrying a hand lens during expeditions for close up, magnified inspection of rocks they find along the way. So it’s also critical to pack various means of calibration so that researchers can interpret their results and put them into proper perspective.

MAHLI can also focus on targets over a wide range of distances near and far, from about a finger’s-width away out to the Red Planets horizon, which in this case means the mountains and rim of the breathtaking Gale Crater landing site.

“When a geologist takes pictures of rock outcrops she is studying, she wants an object of known scale in the photographs,” said MAHLI Principal Investigator Ken Edgett, of Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, which supplied the camera to NASA.

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory Rover - inside the Cleanroom at KSC
Curiosity with robotic arm extended. Calibration target is located at a shoulder joint on the arm. Photo taken just before encapsulation for 8 month long interplanetary Martian Journey and touchdown inside Gale Crater. Credit: Ken Kremer

The target features a collection of marked black bars in a wide range of labeled sizes to correlate calibration images to each image taken by Curiosity.

“If it is a whole cliff face, she’ll ask a person to stand in the shot. If it is a view from a meter or so away, she might use a rock hammer. If it is a close-up, as the MAHLI can take, she might pull something small out of her pocket. Like a penny.”

Edgett donated the special Lincoln penny with funds from his own pocket. The 1909 “VDB” cent stems from the very first year that Lincoln pennies were minted and also marks the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The VDB initials of the coin’s designer – Victor David Brenner — are on the reverse side. In mint condition the 1909 Lincoln VDB copper penny has a value of about $20.

The Lincoln penny in this photograph is part of a camera calibration target attached to NASA's Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The penny is on the MAHLI calibration target as a tip of the hat to geologists’ informal practice of placing a coin or other object of known scale in their photographs. A more formal practice is to use an object with scale marked in millimeters, centimeters or meters,” Edgett said. “Of course, this penny can’t be moved around and placed in MAHLI images; it stays affixed to the rover.”

“Everyone in the United States can recognize the penny and immediately know how big it is, and can compare that with the rover hardware and Mars materials in the same image,” Edgett said.

“The public can watch for changes in the penny over the long term on Mars. Will it change color? Will it corrode? Will it get pitted by windblown sand?”

MAHLI’s calibration target also features a display of six patches of pigmented silicone to assist in interpreting color and brightness in the images. Five of them are leftovers from Spirit and Opportunity. The sixth has a fluorescent pigment that glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light, allows checking of an ultraviolet light source on MAHLI. The fluorescent material was donated to the MAHLI team by Spectra Systems, Inc., Providence, R.I.

Three-dimensional calibration of the MSL images will be done using the penny and a stair-stepped area at the bottom of the target.

“The importance of calibration is to allow data acquired on Mars to be compared reliably to data acquired on Earth,” said Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Curiosity is a 1 ton (900 kg) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots. The science payload is 15 times heavier than the twin robots.

Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA could only afford to build one rover this time.

Curiosity MSL location on 27 Feb 2012. Credit: NASA

Curiosity will be NASA’s last Mars rover since the 4th generation ExoMars rover due to liftoff in 2018 was just cancelled by the Obama Administration as part of a deep slash to NASA’s Planetary Science budget.

Opportunity Phones Home Dusty Self-Portraits and Ground Breaking Science

Mosaic: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer


Opportunity, the Princess of Martian Robots, phoned home dusty new self portraits – above and below – of her beautiful bod basking in the utterly frigid sunshine during her 5th winter on the Red Planet whilst overlooking a humongous crater offering bountiful science.

NASA’s endearing robot is simultaneously carrying out an ambitious array of ground breaking science experiments this winter – providing insight into the mysterious nature of the Martian core – while sitting stationary until the energy augmenting rays of the springtime Sun shower down on Mars from the heavens above.

Opportunity’s current winter worksite is located at the rim of the vast crater named Endeavour, some 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. The robot will remain parked for the winter on a slope at the north end of the crater rim segment called Cape York with an approximate 15-degree northerly tilt towards the life-giving sun to maximize solar energy production. The park-site is at an outcrop dubbed “Greeley Haven”, named in honor of Ronald Greeley, a beloved and recently deceased science team member.

The power killing dust buildup is readily apparent on the solar arrays and High Gain Antenna pictured in the new panoramic self-portraits of Opportunity’s wing-like deck. The red Martian dust also functions as a rather effective camouflage agent, sometimes blending the rover to near invisibility with the surface.

Dusty Mars Rover's Self-Portrait- Dec 2011
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows dust accumulation on the rover's solar panels as the mission approached its fifth Martian winter at the rim of Endeavour Crater. Opportunity is located on the north-facing slope of a site called "Greeley Haven." This is a mosaic of images taken by Opportunity's panoramic camera (Pancam) during the 2,811th to 2,814th Martian days, or sols, of the rover's mission (Dec. 21 to Dec. 24, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Indeed because Opportunity is covered with a thicker film of dust compared to her prior four Martian winters, the rover team was forced to employ the same “tilting” strategy they successfully used to keep her twin sister Spirit alive during her trio of Antarctic-like winters. This is the first winter that Opportunity did not have sufficient power to continue roving across the surface.

Since Opportunity is located just south of the Martian equator, the daylight hours for solar power generation are growing shorter until the southern Mars winter solstice occurs on March 30, 2012. As of mid- February 2012, the latest measure of solar array energy production was 274 watt-hours, compared to about 900 watt-hours at the start of the mission. See Solar Power energy graph below.

Power generation from the solar arrays has fluctuated up and down throughout Opportunity’s lifetime depending on when the completely unpredictable and fortuitous Martian wind storms chance by and miraculously clean the arrays of the rusty red dust.

Opportunity Rover Self-Portrait From 2007
Opportunity used its panoramic camera (Pancam) during the mission's sols 1282 and 1284 (Sept. 2 and Sept. 4, 2007) to take the images combined into this mosaic view of the rover. The downward-looking view omits the mast on which the camera is mounted.The deck panorama is presented in approximate true color, the camera team's best estimate of what the scene would look like if humans were there and able to see it with their own eyes.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The rover science team is ingeniously using the lack of movement to their advantage and Opportunity is still vigorously hard at work doing breakthrough research each and every day.

From her stationary position, Opportunity is conducting her first ever radio science Doppler tracking measurements to support geo-dynamic investigations and to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core. The team was eager for the long awaited chance to carry out the radio tracking experiment with the High Gain Antenna (HGA) and determine if Mars core is liquid or solid. Months of data collection are required while the rover stays stationary.

“This winter science campaign will feature two way radio tracking with Earth to determine the Martian spin axis dynamics – thus the interior structure, a long-neglected aspect of Mars,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy rover Principal Investigator.

Opportunity has nearly finished snapping the 13 filter, 360 degree stereo Greeley” panorama. The rover deployed the robotic arm onto the surface of the “Amboy” outcrop to collect multi-sol integrations with the Mössbauer Spectrometer and the largest ever mosaic campaign using the Microscopic Imager.

“We’ll do good science while we’re at Greeley Haven. But as soon as we catch a wind gust or the seasons change, we’ll be on our way again,” Steve Squyres told Universe Today. Squyres, of Cornell University is the rover Science Principal Investigator

“The Martian southern winter solstice occurs at the end of March. A few months after that date we will drive her off the outcrop and further explore Cape York,” Arvidson told me

The team will drive Opportunity in search of further evidence of the gypsum mineral veins like “Homestake” – indicative of ancient water flow – previously discovered at Cape York. Thereafter they’ll rove further south to investigate deposits of phyllosilicates, the clay minerals which stem from an earlier epoch when liquid water flowed on Mars eons ago and perhaps may have been more favorable to sustaining life.

Graph shows Opportunity’s Solar power energy generation over the past 1000 Sols, or Martian Days, from Sol 1900 up to February 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL/Marco Di Lorenzo

Mars from Earth on Feb 18, 2012 is nearly at opposition (occurs March 3) in this image taken using a Celestron 11 inch telescope in Leesburg, Florida. Astrophotographer Credit: Ernie Rossi

Opportunity is now well into her 9th year exploring hitherto unknown terrain on Mars, far exceeding anyone’s expectation. She landed inside a tiny crater on Jan. 24. 2004 for what was expected to be a mission of merely 90 Martian days, or Sols.

Today is Martian Sol 2873, that’s 32 times beyond the rover designers “warranty” for NASA’s Opportunity rover.

Altogether, Opportunity has journeyed more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the Red Planet’s surface, marking the first overland expedition on another Planet. See our route map below.

Opportunity Rover Traverse Map at Meridiani Planum on Mars - 2004 to 2012
Traverse map shows the 8 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site on Sol 1- Jan. 24, 2004 - to 5th Winter Haven worksite at Greeley Haven at Endeavour Crater rim in January 2012. Opportunity embarked on a crater tour and discovered bountiful evidence for the flow of liquid water on Mars billions of years ago. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles 22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 km). Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/UA/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover is rocketing through space and on course for a pinpoint touchdown inside the layered terrain of Gale Crater on August 6, 2012. Curiosity is now America’s last planned Mars rover following the cancellation of the joint NASA/ESA ExoMars rover mission in the Obama Administrations newly announced Fiscal 2013 NASA budget.

Budget Axe to Gore America’s Future Exploration of Mars and Search for Martian Life

NASA Budget Cuts in Fiscal Year 2013 will force NASA to kill participation in the joint ESA/NASA collaboration to send two Astrobiology related missions to orbit and land rovers on Mars in 2016 and 2018 - designed to search for evidence of Life. Russia will likely replace the deleted Americans.


America’s hugely successful Mars Exploration program is apparently about to be gutted by Obama Administration officials wielding a hefty budget axe in Washington, D.C. Consequently, Russia has been invited to join the program to replace American science instruments and rockets being scrapped.

NASA’s Fiscal 2013 Budget is due to be announced on Monday, February 13 and its widely reported that the Mars science mission budget will be cut nearly in half as part of a significant decline in funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

The proposed deep slash to the Mars exploration budget would kill NASA’s participation in two new missions dubbed “ExoMars” set to launch in 2016 and 2018 as a joint collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ESA/NASA partnership would have dispatched the Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet in 2016 to search for atmospheric methane, a potential signature for microbial life, and an advanced Astrobiology rover to drill deeper into the surface in 2018. These ambitious missions had the best chance yet to determine if Life ever evolved on Mars.

The 2016 and 2018 ExoMars probes were designed to look for evidence of life on Mars and set the stage for follow on missions to retrieve the first ever soil samples from the Red Planet’s surface and eventually land humans on Mars.

Joint ESA/NASA ExoMars Exploration Missions
- Planned 2016 Orbiter and 2018 Rover. NASA participation will be scrapped due to slashed NASA funding by the Obama Admnistartion. Credit: ESA

The proposed Mars budget cuts will obliterate these top priority science goals for NASA.

The BBC reports that “ a public announcement by NASA of its withdrawal from the ExoMars program will probably come once President Obama’s 2013 Federal Budget Request is submitted.”

A Feb. 9 article in ScienceInsider, a publication of the journal Science, states that “President Barack Obama will propose a $300 million cut in NASA’s planetary science programs as part of his 2013 request for the agency.”

This would amount to a 20% cut from $1.5 Billion in 2012 to $1.2 Billion in 2013. The bulk of that reduction is aimed squarely at purposefully eliminating the ExoMars program. And further deep cuts are planned in coming years !

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter would search for atmospheric methane at Mars. NASA instruments to be deleted as a result of budget cuts. Credit: ESA

The Mars budget of about $580 million this year would be radically reduced by over $200 million, thereby necessitating the end of NASA’s participation in ExoMars. These cuts will have a devastating impact on American scientists and engineers working on Mars missions.

The fallout from the looming science funding cuts also caused one longtime and top NASA manager to resign.

According to ScienceInsider, Ed Weiler, NASA’s science mission chief, says he “quit NASA Over Cuts to Mars Program.”

“The Mars program is one of the crown jewels of NASA,” said Ed Weiler to ScienceInsider.

“In what irrational, Homer Simpson world would we single it out for disproportionate cuts?”

“This is not about the science mission directorate, this is not even about NASA. This is about the country. We are the only country in the world that has demonstrated the capability to land anything on Mars. How can we allow that to be undermined?”

Weiler’s resignation from NASA on Sept. 30, 2011 was sudden and quick, virtually from one day to the next. And it came shortly after the successful launch of NASA’s GRAIL lunar probes, when I spoke to Weiler about Mars and NASA’s Planetary Science missions and the gloomy future outlook. Read my earlier Universe Today story about Weiler’s retirement.

Ed Weiler was the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and his distinguished career spanned almost 33 years.

The dire wrangling over NASA’s 2013 budget has been ongoing for many months and some of the funding reductions had already leaked out. For example NASA had already notified ESA that the US could not provide funding for the Atlas V launchers in 2016 and 2018. Furthermore, Weiler and other NASA managers told me the 2018 mission was de-scoped from two surface rovers down to just one to try and save the Mars mission program.

ESA is now inviting Russian participation to replace the total American pullout, which will devastate the future of Red Planet science in the US. American scientists and science instruments would be deleted from the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions.

The only approved US mission to Mars is the MAVEN orbiter due to blastoff in 2013 – and there are NO cameras aboard MAVEN.

Three Generations of US Mars Rovers - 4th Generation ExoMars rover to be Axed by NASA budget cuts.

NASA is caught in an inescapable squeeze between rising costs for ongoing and ambitious new missions and an extremely tough Federal budget environment with politicians of both political affiliations looking to cut what they can to rein in the deficit, no matter the consequences of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.

NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing wrote; “Details of the FY 2013 NASA budget are starting to trickle out. One of the most prominent changes will be the substantial cut to planetary science at SMD [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate]. At the same time, the agency has to eat $1 billion in Webb telescope overruns – half of which will come out of SMD.”

The cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has skyrocketed to $8.7 Billion.

To pay for JWST, NASA is being forced to gut the Mars program and other science missions funded by the same Science Mission Directorate that in the past and present has stirred the public with a mindboggling payoff of astounding science results from many missions that completely reshaped our concept of humankinds place in the Universe.

Meanwhile, China’s space program is rapidly expanding and employing more and more people. China’s scientific and technological prowess and patent applications are increasing and contributing to their fast growing economy as American breakthroughs and capabilities are diminishing.

Under the budget cutting scenario of no vision, the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover will be America’s last Mars rover for a long, long time. Curiosity will thus be the third and last generation of US Mars rovers – 4th generation to be Axed !

Spirit Lander – 1st Color Image from Mars Orbit

1st Color image of Spirit lander and Bonneville Crater from Mars orbit. Near the lower left corner of this view is the three-petal lander platform that NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit drove off in January 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona


The Lander platform for NASA’s Spirit rover has been photographed in stunning high resolution color for the first time from Mars orbit – just over 8 years after the now legendary robot survived the scorching atmospheric heat of the 6 minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and bounced to a stop inside Gusev Crater on January 3, 2004.

Spirit’s three petaled landing pad was finally imaged in color by NASA’s powerful Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft just days ago on January 29, 2012 at 3:04 p.m. local Mars time.

The MRO spacecraft was soaring overhead and captured the image of Spirit’s lander with the high resolution HiRISE camera from a distance of some 262 kilometers, (162 miles).

“HiRISE has never before imaged the actual lander for the Spirit rover in color, [located] on the west side of Bonneville Crater,” writes Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona.

1st Color image of Spirit Lander and Bonneville Crater from Mars orbit
Spirit landing pad at lower left; Bonneville Crater rim at top right.

While protectively cocooned inside the airbag cushioned lander, Spirit bounced about two dozen times before rolling to rest on the Martian plains about ¼ mile away from Bonneville Crater. Then her landing petals unfurled, the airbags were partially retracted and Spirit eventually drove off the landing pad.

“The lander is still bright, but with a reddish color, probably due to a [Martian] dust cover.”

Spirit rover images her Lander Platform after Egress
- Now imaged for the 1st time from Mars orbit by NASA’s MRO spacecraft. Lander had 3-petals and airbags. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Spirit initially drove to Bonneville Crater and circumnavigated part way around the rim before speeding off towards the Columbia Hills, about 2 miles to the East. She eventually scaled the summit of Husband Hill and drove down the opposite side to the Home Plate” volcanic feature where she rests today – see travse map below.

“A bright spot from a remnant of the heat shield is still visible on the north rim of Bonneville Crater. The backshell and parachute are still bright, but were not captured in the narrow color swath.”

“The rover itself can still be seen near “Home Plate” in the Columbia Hills, but there is no obvious sign of rover tracks–erased by the wind,” McEwen notes.

Here is a photo taken by Spirit looking back to the lander – now imaged in color from orbit for the first time – for a comparative view, before she drove off forever.

Spirit endured for more than six years of bonus time exploration beyond her planned 90 day mission. And Opportunity is still roving Mars today !

Spirit Rover traverse map from Gusev Crater landing site near Bonneville Crater to Columbia Hills to Home Plate: 2004 to 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL/UA/HiRISE

Curiosity – NASA’s newest, biggest ever and maybe last Mars rover – is speeding through interplanetary space for an August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater.

Read my 8th Year Anniversary articles about Spirit and Opportunity on Mars – here and here

NASA’s Resilient Rover Opportunity Begins Year 9 On Mars with Audacious Science Ahead

Martian Vista from Opportunity at Endeavour Crater - 8 Years on Mars. NASA’s Opportunity rover celebrated 8 Years on Mars on January 24, 2012. This mosaic shows portions of the segmented rim of Endeavour crater (14 miles, 22 km wide) after the robot arriving at the craters foothills in August 2011. Large ejecta blocks from a smaller nearby crater are visible in the middle. At Endeavour, Opportunity will investigate the oldest minerals deposits she has ever visited from billions of years ago and which may hold clues to environments that were potentially habitable for microbial life. The rover will eventually drive to Cape Tribulation at right after surviving her 5th winter on Mars. Mosaic Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer


Today, the resilient Opportunity robot begins her 9th year roving around beautifully Earth-like Martian terrain where potentially life sustaining liquid water once flowed billions of years ago.

Opportunity celebrates her 8th anniversary on the Red Planet gazing at the foothills of the vast crater named Endeavour, promising a “mother lode” of “watery” science – an unimaginable circumstance since the nail biting landing on the hematite rich plains of Meridiani Planum on 24 January 2004.

“Opportunity is 97 months into the 3 month mission,” team members are proud and universally surprised to say.

“Milestones like 8 years on Mars always make me look forward rather than looking back,” Rover Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told Universe Today for this article commemorating Opportunity’s landing.

“We’ve still got a lot of exploring to do, but we’re doing it with a vehicle that was designed for a 90-sol mission. That means that every sol is a gift at this point.”

Opportunity has driven more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) across the Red Planet’s surface during what is truly humankind’s first overland expedition on another Planet. See our route map below.

Opportunity Rover Traverse Map at Meridiani Planum on Mars - 2004 to 2012
Traverse map shows the 8 Year Journey of Opportunity from Eagle Crater landing site on Sol 1- Jan. 24, 2004 - to 5th Winter Haven worksite at Greeley Haven at Endeavour Crater rim in January 2012. Opportunity embarked on a crater tour and discovered bountiful evidence for the flow of liquid water on Mars billions of years ago. The robot has shown that ancient ephemeral shallow lakes existed on Mars when the cratered terrain was cut by fluvial channels. Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter. Opportunity has so far driven more than 21 miles (34 km) over 8 Years but was only expected to live for 90 Martian days. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/UA/Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity blasted off for Mars atop a pair of Delta II rockets in the summer of 2003 with a mission “warranty” of just 90 Martian days, or Sols.

Today is Sol 2846 of working operations for Opportunity, compared to an anticipated lifetime of only 90 Sols – that amounts to more than 31 times beyond the designer’s expectations.

Indeed, the long lived robot is now enduring her 5th Winter on Mars. And to glimpse the next Martian sunrise, the robo girls manmade components must survive the harsh extremes of frigid Antarctic-like temperatures each and every sol.

“I never thought that we would still be planning sequences for Opportunity today,” Ray Arvidson told Universe Today. Arvidson, of Washington University in St. Louis, is the deputy rover principal investigator.

“I seriously thought both Spirit and Opportunity would be finished by the summer of 2004.”

Opportunity's Eighth Anniversary View From 'Greeley Haven' (False Color). This mosaic of images taken in mid-January 2012 shows the windswept vista northward (left) to northeastward (right) from the location where Opportunity is spending its fifth Martian winter, an outcrop informally named "Greeley Haven. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

But, Opportunity is the gift to science that keeps on giving.

“I am feeling pretty good as the MER rover anniversaries approach,” Arvidson told me.

“Opportunity has shown that ancient ephemeral shallow lakes existed as Mars moved climatically from an early period when the cratered terrain was cut by fluvial channels to the current dry and cold conditions that dominate.”

“Both rovers have conclusively shown the need for lateral mobility to get to relevant outcrops and back out the secrets associated with past conditions,” Arvidson explained.

Barely a month ago the bountiful harvest from mobility was once again demonstrated when the science team lead by Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had discovered the most scientifically compelling evidence yet for the flow of liquid water on ancient Mars.

Squyres and Arvidson announced that Opportunity had found a bright vein – named “Homestake” – composed of the mineral gypsum located at the Cape York segment of Endeavour Crater where the intrepid robot is currently spending her 5th Martian Winter.

“This gypsum vein is the single most powerful piece of evidence for liquid water at Mars that has been discovered by the Opportunity rover,” Squyres explained.

Veins are a geologic indication of the past flow of liquid water.

See our mosaic below illustrating the exact location of the “Homestake” vein at Endeavour Crater – also published at Astronomy Picture of the Day; 12 Dec 2011.

Opportunity discovers Water related Mineral Vein at Endeavour Crater - November 2011
Opportunity rover discovered Gypsum at the Homestake mineral vein, while exploring around the base of Cape York ridge at the rim of Endeavour Crater. The vein is composed of calcium sulfate and indicates the ancient flow of liquid water at this spot on Mars. This panoramic mosaic of images was taken on Sol 2761, November 2011, and illustrates the exact spot of the mineral vein discovery.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Kenneth Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Published on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD): 12 Dec 2011

Opportunity just arrived at the rim of the 14 mile (22 kilometer) wide Endeavour Crater in mid-August 2011 following an epic three year trek across treacherous dune fields from her prior investigative target at the ½ mile wide Victoria Crater.

“It’s like a whole new mission since we arrived at Cape York,” says Squyres.

For the next few months of the bitterly cold Martian winter, Opportunity will conduct a vigorous science campaign while remaining mostly stationary at a spot dubbed “Greeley Haven” in honor of Prof. Ronald Greeley, a team member from Arizona State University who recently passed away.

Opportunity Mars Rover at 5th Winter Worksite at Endeavour Crater
This mosaic shows the view of NASA’s Opportunity rover parked at “Greeley Haven” worksite where the robot will spend her 5th Martian Winter. This mosaic of images shows the Winter Haven view from the Cape York Ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater looking south along the crater rim. Tire tracks at right. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Kenneth Kremer

At this moment Opportunity is snapping a 360 degree panorama, deploying her robotic arm onto nearby outcrops, collecting microscopic images, making measurements of mineral compositions with the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer and conducting radio science observations to elucidate the unknown structure of the Martian interior and core.

The rover is covered with a significant coating of dust which limits her ability to generate power from the life sustaining solar arrays. Since Opportunity is traversing just south of the equator, engineers have temporarily parked her on a northerly facing slope to maximize the electric power generation.

“Opportunity is currently sitting on an outcrop of impact breccias at Greeley Haven on Cape York,” said Arvidson.

Opportunity will remain at Greeley Haven until some time after the Winter Solstice of southern Martian winter occurs at the end of March.

'Greeley Haven' Site for Opportunity's Fifth Martian Winter. This mosaic of Greeley Haven was acquired by Opportunity on Sol 2793, Dec. 2, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.

Then she’ll head south to further explore the veins and eventually drive to deposits of the clay mineral located a few miles (km) away along the craters rim.

“We’ll do good science while we’re at Greeley Haven. But as soon as we catch a wind gust or the seasons change, we’ll be on our way again,” Squyres told me.

The legendary twins Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in space exploration.